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A growing metals market is needed for economic recovery

The future will be more metals-intensive than the past.

Brahma Group contractors use oxylances to cut up a counterweight from a shovel that was recovered from the April 2013 landslide at the Kennecott Copper Mine in Bingham Canyon on Friday, March 21, 2014.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

As the global economy eyes a recovery and markets welcome promising vaccine news and a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, global investors are rushing to metals and the companies that mine them. Whether copper, iron or aluminum, these metal building blocks for manufacturing and infrastructure have become market favorites. Copper prices are approaching eight-year highs, iron ore prices are up nearly 50% this year and aluminum is up 40% since May.

Near-term trends are certainly driving this interest. But longer-term trends, including a recalibration of the importance of metal mining to technology (particularly advanced energy technologies), is the undercurrent for the long-term investor.

The immediate market momentum for minerals and metals provided by the likelihood of global infrastructure stimulus is being reinforced by something even bigger. There’s growing bipartisan consensus on the need to strengthen our domestic supply chain — and ensure a steady supply of the metals that are so vital to our future.

Potential stimulus spending and a flurry of investment in advanced energy manufacturing — notably in the electric vehicle and battery space — is showing up in the market. Copper, the key metal to electrification — and essential in everything from electric turbines and solar panels to transmission lines and electric vehicles — is on a tear.

Copper’s run hints at the soaring demand for essential metals that is now looming on the horizon. The World Bank recently found that the production of these metals — everything from copper and lithium to nickel and cobalt — could jump 500% by 2050. And the analysts at Wood Mackenzie estimate that $1 trillion in mining investment will be needed in the next 15 years to just keep up with demand.

Remarkably, these projections could prove too low. Tesla aims to produce 20 million electric vehicles and their lithium-ion batteries annually by 2030. Doing so will require an eight-fold increase in the global lithium industry. And that’s just one player in an ultra-competitive race to win the EV market. Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker, recently announced an $86 billion investment in EVs over the next five years. This pivot to electrification is beginning to feel like a stampede.

While markets are awakening to the coming demand for key minerals and metals, smart policy continues to lag when it comes to ensuring a stable, responsible and responsive supply of these irreplaceable materials.

The speed at which mineral demand is growing due to advanced energy technology is outpacing U.S. mining’s ability to respond in the current policy environment. The time required to get a new metal mine up and running — and supply product to market — often takes a decade or more. In the U.S., just permitting a new mine now takes an average of seven to 10 years, and often more.

In Canada and Australia, nations with similar, world-leading environmental standards, permitting takes just two to three years. The U.S. can and should do better. Commonsense, bipartisan legislation to reform the mine permitting process has been languishing in Congress.

A failure to act not only threatens to let a tremendous economic opportunity slip through our fingers, but also deepens the nation’s alarming mineral import reliance at the very moment we can least afford it. The U.S. now finds itself more than 50% import-reliant for 29 key minerals and metals, and completely import-reliant for another 17.

The future will be more metals-intensive than the past. The market is awakening to this unshakeable realization — that the very technologies essential to our recovering economy will be built on a foundation provided by mining. It’s now absolutely essential that smart policy recognizes this need and opportunity.

Rich Nolan is president and CEO of the National Mining Association.